Sunday, March 12, 2017

Why the "A" is important in "STEAM"

Recently, there was a video posted on the Ford Motor Company's Facebook page that stirred up a lot of comments from people arguing about STEAM vs STEM.  There were so many comments on the original post that I can no longer find the specific comments I intended to share here, but since they were posted in a public place, I feel it is OK for me to paraphrase and share with you.   It may help you realize how essential it is to advocate for art education, because there are still  people who truly do not understand how indispensable the arts are in our culture and in our lives. 

Here's the theme of the comment that most concerned me: The author said that he felt is was a shame that Ford was promoting STEAM over STEM, and that it was not presenting a good message for our sons and daughters.  He felt that STEM was the right answer for our children because it leads to careers that pay well.  He further indicated that people who study STEM earn more than those who study art, and that and that suggesting that art was an an equal means to a career was not substantiated by facts.

So here's where advocacy comes in.  The fact that the author of this comment feels the way he does, indicates to me that perhaps we aren't doing a good enough job explaining the "A" in STEAM.  I think we as art teachers have placed a lot of emphasis on how art teaches kids to think creatively, to use critical thinking skills, and to solve problems.  We know this is true.  But, I may be unpopular for saying this, but the truth is, we are NOT the only discipline that uses critical thinking.  Scientists and engineers also use critical thinking skills and solve problems.  But there's another element besides critical thinking/problem solving that art adds to the STEAM equation, that I do not think has been emphasized enough, even though it's something we innately (and exclusively) know.

Let's say that someone has come up with an idea for a new product, whether a fuel-efficient car with modern technological innovations, or a prosthetic limb, or a faster toaster, or a more comfortable ergonomic shoe, or even a healthier breakfast cereal.  The scientific innovations of these products are important to making us want them.  But to SELL the product, it needs more.  Image is important.  The car needs to look cool.  The toaster should look great on your kitchen counter.  The look of the prosthetic should make the wearer feel confident.  The shoe should look stylish, fashionable.  And the breakfast cereal needs packaging that will make your child want to eat it.  The artist is essential to taking the invention, the innovation, and creating the visual design, the "packaging", that makes it saleable.  It takes that technologically advanced car and makes it beautiful, or sexy, or sleek, or fun-looking, etc.  And beyond the product itself, the artist is also the person who creates the advertising design that makes the public crave the product.

If you are doing STEAM projects in your school, go ahead and work on the problem solving, the critical thinking, and the innovation.  But don't stop there.  Remind your students that they are artists, and that if they are creating an innovation, that their job is also going to be to sell it.  The scientist, the engineer, and the mathematician expect the design artist to work on the packaging and advertising.  For the "A" in STEAM, our students need to go further than the conceptual part of innovation, and learn the design skills necessary to sell their innovations.  Don't forget the visual part of art!  Teach your students the importance of creating the visual design of their inventions.  If you are doing a STEAM event, make product design and advertising a part of the event, after the problem-solving part of the challenges have been completed.  I think here's where parents and community will begin to  understand how essential art is to innovation.

Back to the original comment.   Remember, the author said that STEM was preferred to STEAM because it leads to careers that pay well.  I have two thoughts about that.  First of all, he's just plain wrong.  Design careers can be lucrative.  Not all artists are poor and starving!  Second of all, we need to remember that career decisions aren't just about which career will make you richer.  For example, I chose to be a teacher, knowing that a teaching career wouldn't be the highest paying option.  But we don't strictly choose our life careers by which one earns more.  We find the career that best suits our skills, our personalities, our lifestyles, etc.  We who choose to teach do so because it is what we are, what we do; our choice to teach is a noble and meaningful choice, even if we will never be paid what an attorney or a doctor or an engineer will earn.  Everything is not always about money!! 

Thanks for reading my ramblings.  I'd love to hear your thoughts on how we can get people to better understand the importance of that A in STEAM!

1 comment:

  1. Well done Phyllis, I will be sharing this article. But I want to point out that it is the designer and not the engineer who determines how usable and comfortable the car is to use. Whether the controls are visible, whether the gearshift is accessible, how convenient the cup holders are? All the decisions of industrial designers with art degrees, not engineers. So you can add ergonomics (a word invented by a designer) to your list of design contributions. This is true by the way of every product you buy. You know the handle grip of that sleek new razor you bought? How it doesn't slip from your hands in the shower? That was the brainchild of a designer with an art degree. I know this because my husband is an industrial designer. He designs museum exhibits. When you walk into an exhibit and see clear labeling, smooth traffic flow with no bottlenecks, wheel chair accessibility and interesting interactive interpretative centers you can absolutely rest assured it was the work of designers, educators and curators working as a team with nary an engineer in sight. The best cars, shoes and cerials don't rely on aesthetics just for surface decoration. They incorporate it from conception to inception.